God of Small Colours
Short Story Prize - Runner Up
She is born in colour. This in itself is unremarkable; it is the way most people are brought into the world. Ilse knows no different. There is a rainstorm out the back window, one she learns of later. Her mother cries, holds her in her arms.
The next time is the same: Ilse, the rainstorm, the blinding colour. It fades, in the end, leaves only black and white behind. There are a hundred versions of her, of that little girl. Of the woman she becomes. She decides it’s all a matter of light, the universe cast through broken glass, sparkling, spiraling. They pull at her, these different versions of fate. She is always looking for something.
‘They took the colour,’ she says at six years old. Her father doesn’t understand, her mother shakes her head. They think she is crazy. They don’t know that she has lived this a hundred times. They never give her an answer.
She lives fifty three times before someone explains. Her grandmother, knitting by the fire. Her parents are scattered, working, or drowning themselves in loneliness, never enough love to go round. Grandma, the rocking chair, Ilse caught in the embers of a dying flame. She cannot see the burnt orange, the smoke trailing its way through the room. There is only black and white.
‘You must find the difference,’ her grandmother says. ‘You must find the colour.’ There, it is said, is where true happiness lies. When the black is just the smoke twisting from the fire, when the white just the colour of snow. That is when you will see all colours, when death is just that and not starting again. Isle’s grandmother has lived a thousand lives, she says; they took the colours from her too.
In this life, Isle dies at forty five, hit by a tram in the city centre just after her birthday. Some of the colours have been found - there is blue in the sky and the green of grass. They are the first to come, she learns. No red yet. She doesn’t see the break lights.
She is born to the rainbow, remembers her grandmother’s words, has the other lives like half-forgotten songs stuck in the back of her mind. It is like jumping on stepping stones and knowing you might fall. When you do, slipping and failing and trying to hold on, you go right back to the beginning. But you can’t quite remember where it was that you went wrong.
Ilse has worked out certain triggers, knows living her life a particular way brings certain colours. Blue when she graduates from school, green when she gets her first job. These are easy colours to find.
Being with her grandmother, lying side by side behind the house just after her eleventh birthday, gives her violet. But even the ones Ilse finds can disappear; they are as fragile as a birds’ wing, broken and hardly flying. Only a hundred lives in and she barely knows what she is doing. Six days later, the violet fades. Her grandmother dies. Ilse can’t ever change that, no matter how many times she watches it. The last gasp, eyes fixed, her mother crying in the back bedroom. This is never different.
It takes Ilse a long time to find violet again. It remains elusive, caught on the edges of her consciousness, there but not - the bird flying away, no longer trapped. It is not just violet she loses.
The older she gets, the harder it is to keep hold of things. There is a boy who brings yellow, but it is there only for a heartbeat. Another who gifts her pink; he is the first love, innocent - he takes her to a cinema and buys her popcorn and is afraid of her father. She loves him, in a way, for the smile he leaves her with. It doesn’t last long. It never could. She still hasn’t found all her colours.
Before she died, Ilse’s grandmother used to tell her about the ways she found colour. Two hundred lives and she’d discovered all but one. So it kept sending her back to try again. It remained out of reach, never mind the things that were changed, the different paths taken. But something did not want to be found.
‘It is like searching for a puzzle piece that has the corner broken off. You think you will never find it.’
Ilse’s grandmother believed this for hundreds of lives. There would never be an end, she thought, but one day she woke up and saw it: the rainbow had come back for her.
‘Do you know what it was?’ Ilse asks. She is ten, her tiny hands pressed together, a whisper of a prayer. Her grandmother leans backwards, lets out a cackle.
‘Oh Ilse,’ she says, ‘I wish I could tell you.’
‘What’s got into you?’ It’s Ilse’s mother, as they walk downtown. The streetlights are flashing, but she can’t tell what colour. It was there once, she thinks, but not anymore.
She shrugs. Her mother has never understood any of this, never tried. Ilse is a law unto herself, slipping away, never staying for long. In her lives, there is always a road to take, a track to fall head first into. Ilse has been around a long time, she knows where the no go’s are. There’s a crossing, down here on the right, it’s the one her mother will guide them too without thinking about it.
There’s a drunk driver around the corner. The man - twenty six, the same age as Ilse - had one too many when mourning the loss of his wife, isn’t thinking straight. She and her mother were talking about Ilse’s choice in men the first time, she thinks, or maybe politics. Maybe that was that the second time. It was horrible either way.
The car, zigzagging through the junction, disregarding the lights, the pedestrians scattering like toy soldiers pushed over by an angry child.
Here it is not Ilse’s turn, though she’s had plenty of those over the years, but her mother’s - the woman who loved her but never said. Her head is on the curb, the driver has pushed his dented door open, stands in the wake of his carnage. Ilse knows there is nothing she can do to stop him. That was a wasted life, wasn’t it - a story for another time. No. She can’t stop him.
But she saves her mother. They walk towards the lights that still have no colour. Ilse takes her mother’s arm, glances at the others who walk oblivious. She cannot save them all. She has to tell herself that. It is barely more than a dream, the memories that sometimes play tricks on her. A sense, maybe. Is that a better way to put it?
She knows not to cross that road, that she has done it before in another life. She can sense the colours falling from her. There is a pastel green, the colour of the blanket her mother knitted her when she was a baby. That’s the one that dims when her mother dies here.
‘Maybe we could go for a coffee?’ Ilse says. Her mother stares at her for a moment, blinks, then smiles.
‘Why not?’ Ilse can think of a few reasons.
The first life that her mother died here, maybe sixty in, Ilse had stumbled blind to that coffee shop, bleeding and angry because she hadn’t seen it coming. Next time, she decided, she wouldn’t let it be like that again.
The coffee shop is busy. This time, every time. They talk, little things of barely any importance. Ilse and her mother never talk about anything real anymore - it is all up in the air, make believe things, castles in the air. Ilse has know this for a hundred lives. They are not close. Not in any life.
Her mother leaves with the nod of the head. Ilse is happy, in this life, because even though they don’t see eye to eye, she still has a mother.
She finds red at a theatre opposite her house. Ilse likes the lights, the buzz. She finds him in the wings. A friend of a friend, here to get a look at how it all works. There’s that flicker, instantly, when she sees the colour for the first time. It surprises her. She smiles, says something, rushes back to finish the act.
There have been boys, life on life - there have been husbands and laughter and the little hands of little children. But everything changes when she meets David.
He’s sitting on the props table when she returns, swinging his legs. She barely notices him, really, can’t tell that he is the one who gave her the colour. She’s never tried her hand at acting before. The last life was a disaster, over by thirty. Ilse doesn’t like to think about it. There were a lot of lives like that.
There’s an after party, a local bar. Ilse doesn’t go, but almost everyone else does. She watches them from the dressing room door, leaning forward, laughing at something. This happens a lot of times. Ilse always sees so much of the rainbow then - gets so close to perfect, to the final life her grandmother talked of. But only a heartbeat. It tells her that she’s on the right track.
‘You not going?’ David says. Ilse had no idea he was still here. She puts on her coat. She has only just met him.
‘No,’ she says. She doesn't meet his glance.
They wait out the emergency exit together, the neon green sign hung above them. She can’t see it in this life. She’s waiting for a friend, he is too. He makes her laugh. There’s still red. Red for love or for danger, she wonders. All those lives, she’s not sure she ever worked that one out.
He goes home with his girlfriend, she heads back to her life.
That life doesn’t end with the rainbow, neither does the next. David stays at arms length, a guy she knows from the theatre. Background noise, that’s what she thinks. Nothing important. She learnt that from her mother, maybe, or her father - how to talk around things, never getting to the heart of it. David just remains there.
Ilse’s grandmother used to tell her that the colours often came with no warning, with no cause. Doing the washing up, of course, on a random Saturday night - the perfect way to find orange, the colour of the fire. That’s the story she used to tell, Ilse remembers.
So she finds the red in the theatre with David but it takes her an awfully long time to work that out.
‘You said you were scared?’ That’s Jill, the other side of the pillow. Ilse looks up. She’s lying on her front on the bed, looking out at the horizon, the sunrise over the city. She can’t see the contrast yet.
‘Yeah,’ Jill says, ‘you said you were scared about what this life would bring.’
Ilse laughs. ‘I always feel like that.’
Jill is staring at her, head to one side.
‘I don’t think I’ll ever understand you.’ They’ve had this conversation before. Well, Ilse has. She can remember it and can’t remember it. The girl from the bar, the one she always takes home. Jill’s fun, she smiles and laughs and always dies too young.
Ilse turns, caught in the scattering sun skies. This gives her colours, slipping through her fingers. Jill is the first person she loves. All those lives. She’s certainly not the last.
‘David called,’ Jill says.
‘David always calls,’ Ilse laughs.
‘Dinner?’ That’s David, a couple of lives down the line. Where’s Jill, she wonders - oh, yes, a holiday to France. She doesn’t come back.
Ilse smiles despite herself. There’s red, the brake lights of his car, sitting in front of her flat. It’s dark, she’s got her arms crossed from the cold. He doesn’t give up easily, this David.
Life five hundred. She’d celebrate if she knew.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘No dinner.’
She waits for David to break up with his girlfriend. She doesn’t always do this.
They go for a drink, at first, and she wishes for the whole kaleidoscope of colours. She wants it, needs it; this is the happiest she has ever been. Surely this is the life she was searching for, she thinks. But the world - god, fate - have decided that she is wrong.
This is not the final life.
She is exhausted. A hundred lives to try and work out where she and David go wrong, where he fits into this picture. She tries to live without him for a while, goes to France with Jill, sees if she can make a life there. Fifty lives maybe, sitting late at night in a Parisian bakery laughing over a glass of wine and pretending everything’s not going to go to crap. Too many colours go with Jill, stolen into the cold night air. It never works, however hard she tries.
‘Have a good life, ‘ey?’ Jill says at the airport, hugging her so tight that Ilse is worried she’ll stop breathing.
‘What would you do if we had children?’ David. There’s a ring on his finger today. Does it matter if it’s hers?
Ilse shrugs. She has had children before, she can remember it in the fringes of her mind. A memory taken by the wind.
There’s something in her heart telling her that children are a bad idea. It is not just her parents, ineffectual but there, who have put her off the idea but this constant re-living too. Ilse has said goodbye to an army of small eyed, calm souled children who she once called her own. They don’t come back so easy, do they? So no, there’s an ache in her heart, a feeling that she can’t say goodbye again.
‘I think you’d make a good mother.’
‘Ha,’ she laughs. ‘You’ve always been a good liar, David.’
She gives in. She’s not sure when. Nearly a hundred lives without children - growing old with David, without David, with Jill’s laugh as a constant companion even though the woman herself is gone. It gives her violet, holding her son in her arms for the first time. Ilse can’t remember, won’t remember, if this has happened before. Her grandmother always said that having children was the worst part.
‘They give you all sorts of happiness, of colour,’ she says. ‘But sometimes it’s just not the right life. You shouldn’t have to say goodbye to someone you love.’
Ah, but she knew, Ilse’s grandmother, that it’s always inevitable.
So her son brings purple - David’s son. He’s sitting on the chair by the bed, half asleep, watching out of the corner of his eye. He looks nervous, she doesn’t blame him. He’s never done this before. Neither has she, she tells herself. It is a lie, but one only her heart betrays.
She and David grow old with their son, but as the days get shorter, the light nears the end, Ilse is so terribly aware that she hasn’t found all the colours. A restart, that’s what her grandmother said. Until she’s gets it right. Ilse has no idea what is wrong. Maybe it is her and David, fighting in the early hours over stupid things. She loves him, she hates him. The line, she decides, is in sand - they re-draw it every morning.
The god of the small colours, the ones she has yet to find, won’t give in. They won’t let her have this - the fights over nothing, the happiness her son brings to this world. David, lying by her side, humming a song she has forgotten the words to. Is this what love looks like? Ilse has lived so many lives but even she can’t tell you the answer.
David and her boy. It’s got her close enough. Ilse still feels like she has so much to learn about herself. Every morning she wishes to wake up and find the rainbow, but it escapes her, runs away. She is too tired to catch them.
‘Maybe we should split up?’ David says. They’re on a six am flight to Dubrovnik. Their son is eight, asleep beside them.
‘Maybe we should.’
‘For him,’ David says, nodding at their boy. Yes, Ilse thinks. For him. She doesn’t think this is the final life but she’s been surprised before. She remembers the girl in the bar, the boy in the wings, her grandmother knitting by the fire.
Jill’s grave, a trip to France, getting old. Her son is running in the headstones, arms outstretched like a fighter jet. David is chasing them. They have been divorced for six years. Ilse finally feels free.
She puts the flowers down, feels a sadness lift from her chest.
‘I think I had a good life,’ Ilse says, turning around to see the sun rising in the distance.
She closes her eyes. When she opens them, the whole world is in colour. Ilse is being re-born. Her grandmother never described it, but it feels wonderful. The puzzle piece, broken and re-broken, finally fitting. Ilse has never realised that she felt empty before, but now she is whole. She is free.
‘Wait up for me,’ she says. David turns and laughs, their son runs over the hill towards the horizon. Yes, she thinks, I’ve had a good life. They took the rainbow, but it’s come back. Ilse found the difference.